After nearly 10 years since it left Earth, NASA's rover Opportunity is about to head out on a new mission -- a weeks-long trek to study a new area on Mars.
The Mars rover Opportunity will be driving from Cape York to Solander Point over the next few weeks, heading toward a new exploration point. (Image: NASA/JPL)
Opportunity, the older brother to super rover Curiosity, which landed on Mars last August, is heading out to an area NASA scientists dubbed "Solander Point," a taller stack of geological layering than the area where the rover has worked for the past 20 months.
"Getting to Solander Point will be like walking up to a road cut where you see a cross section of the rock layers," said Ray Arvidson, deputy principal investigator for the mission.
NASA noted that Solander Point also offers plenty of ground that is tilted toward the north, which will help the solar-powered rover stay active and mobile through the coming Martian winter.
In April, scientists pulled Opportunity out of stand-by mode, after the rover got into trouble during a monthlong communications blackout with Earth.
In 2003, the space agency launched twin rovers -- Spirit on June 10 and Opportunity on July 7. Both rovers landed on the Martian surface in January 2004. They completed their three-month prime missions and began years of bonus, extended missions.
Both Opportunity and Spirit found evidence of wet environments on ancient Mars, which tells scientists that Mars may have once been able to support life, even if in a microbial form.
Spirit, Opportunity's twin rover, stopped functioning in 2010 during its fourth Martian winter when it became stuck in soft sand.
NASA scientists say Opportunity shows symptoms of aging, such as loss of motion in some joints, but it is still accomplishing what they say are "groundbreaking exploration and science."
Last month, Opportunity used the rock abrasion tool, the alpha particle X-ray spectrometer and the microscopic imager on its robotic arm to examine a rock, NASA noted. It found a combination of elements that led them to conclude the rock has a clay-mineral composition.
"The results are some of the most important findings of our entire mission," said Steve Squyres, principal investigator for the mission. "The composition tells us about the environmental conditions that altered the minerals. A lot of water moved through this rock."
Last fall, after less than two months on Mars, Curiosity discovered evidence of a "vigorous" thousand-year water flow not far from its landing site.
This was big news for NASA scientists, who sent the nuclear-powered, SUV-sized super rover to Mars with the hopes that it would find evidence of whether Mars was ever capable of supporting life.
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